Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Parmesan Sformato - Italian Cheese "Flan" or "Souffle"

My husband and I traveled to Italy last year. We went to Venice, Lake Como, Tuscan hill towns, Bologna, Florence, Pisa, Cinque Terre. We ate amazing food; drank great wine; practiced what little Italian we know; marveled over the architecture and scenery; and tried to absorb centuries of history and culture. It was awesome. We are looking forward to the day we can return to do a Southern tour of Italy!

One item that I ate for the first time was "sformato" an egg based dish seen most often as a starter or appetizer. At first I thought it was a mini frittata, but it is clearly not cooked in a skillet. And the texture is so fluffy yet luxurious. The basic version is like a souffle, but richer and less airy. The name comes from the Italian sformare meaning "to unmold". But don't get hung up on that. The sformato can be served in the ramekin or dish it was cooked in or unmolded if you prefer. Twice I had Parmesan Sformato and twice I had Sfmormato enhanced with finely minced seasonal vegetables. Obviously this would be a great way to use up odds and ends of cheeses and veggies! I love that.

Parmesan Sformato (Italian cheese "flan" or "souffle")

by Woo
1 Tablespoon butter, plus additional for coating ramekins
1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk - hot, but not boiled
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of freshly ground white pepper
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 eggs
3/4 cup of finely grated Parmigiana Reggiano - use the real stuff and grate it yourself (substitutions: Pecorino Romano or Grana Padano)
Kettle of boiling water for water bath

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Start by making a basic bechamel sauce (or in Italian it is besciamella or balsamella or bechimella) which couldn't be any easier. Over medium-low heat melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the flour, whisk smooth. Cook for about three to five minutes, or so, to cook out the raw flour taste, but do not allow to brown. Add the hot milk, whisking constantly. Continue to cook while whisking, until the mixture thickens to the consistency of heavy cream (about 10-15 minutes depending on how hot your stove runs.)  Stir in salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Set aside to cool slightly.

In a mixing bowl, whisk 2 eggs. Add about 1/4 cup of the bechamel while whisking vigorously. Add a little bit more bechamel whisking well with each addition. Once all of the bechamel is incorporated into the eggs, add the finely grated Parmesan. Generously butter four 4-6 ounce ramekins. This produces about 12 ounces of batter. Evenly pour the batter into the ramekins about 3/4 full. The sformato will puff up and rise during baking. Place ramekins in a baking dish. Set baking dish in oven, adding enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Remove when the sformati are puffed, golden brown, and appear to be set. Remove from water bath and allow to settle for several minutes before unmolding. I prefer to serve it right side up so you can see the golden brown top. Serve as a luxurious first course or a light entree with salad and bread.

Variations: One of the versions I had included zucchini in the batter. Another version served the sformato surrounded by a Tuscan kale stew. All kinds of vegetables can be cooked, pureed and incorporated into the batter. Fennel, cauliflower, spinach, and cardoons are traditional.


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